These days the word memento meaning a souvenir, or reminder, is most usually followed by the word mori, which means ‘of death.’ In Art the memento mori is most often presented in the form of a skull but the hour-glass, the scythe-bearing skeleton, the owl and even the bat, have been used to represent oblivion, thanatos and the finality of what Shakespeare called the ‘grim night.’ All of which seems appropriate to mention here at this exhibition, so substantially concerned- as it is- with nostalgia and death. But this show is free, save its preview-invitation card, from the usual trappings of nostalgia. The bleached ectoplasmic photographs, similar no doubt to those to which Dylan Thomas refers in Under Milk Wood as the yellow, dicky-bird watching pictures of the dead, are notable only for their absence.
I think it was T.S. Eliot or maybe Yeats, who referred to death as that last great distinguished thing. And In his blimpish poem Recessional, Laurence Binyon refers to Death- august and royal. Death then is a good metaphor, rhetoric and hyperbole. And that’s fine, I suppose, but it does rather ignore its realities.
Death has been particularly good to poetry too…take the Book of Common Prayer and in particular its Order for the Burial of the Dead, which its extensive quotations from the Authorised Version of The Bible. Both of which books are cornerstones of the English language and this service, certainly the most sonorous part of the liturgy, contains some of its most brilliant images, as well as sounds:
I shall rise out of the earth in the last day, and shall be covered again with my skin, and shall see God in my flesh…
We brought nothing into this world, neither may we carry anything out of this world…
Man that is born of woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery: he cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he flieth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one story.
Mordant, as it all is, it represents a substantial whitewash job, if a necessarily therapeutic one, in which the squalid and painful and frequently grotesque, realities of the Grim Reaper are wrapped about with such poetics, that they have about as much correspondence with reality as an Andrex toilet paper ad. has with defecation.
Speaking as one who is now much nearer death than birth, one with more and more friends regularly featured in the obituary columns and one with more direct experiences of death than out homogenised society generally admits, one can say it’s substantially all lies. One can unambiguously assert that death is deeply romanticised and has experienced an undeservedly good press!
In these little baths you see here were bodies bathed live but bodies dead too. But we’re dealing with people who would only have kept coal in them, had they actually been given proper baths and bathrooms!
A coroner or doctor pronounced David Garner’s father to have suffered Death by Industrial Disease. What other response than anger can be encountered by this verdict’s anodyne condescension and blandness? And not innocent blandness either, but blandness deliberate, blandness cynical. This if nothing else should persuade of the importance of language, when an airy insouciant word, spoken with the confidence of the master class, can succeed in burying the truth.
And much has been buried: the true story of the causes of the many, many thousands of deaths in South Wales, as a result of the existence here of particularly rich and vicious cocktails, of metallurgical chemicals, industrial blight and even the physical dangers attendant in landscapes of unfilled mineshafts, abandoned ponds and unsafe canals. Not only is the truth concerning all this yet to be fully told but, even today, its legacy is being grimly reaped.
Of course there were those who were maimed in the mines and steelworks and many who were killed there too. Take Sengenydd, where four hundred and thirty nine men died in 1913. That was but the tip of the iceberg; many more men died year on year, in individual accidents. But other by-products were equally grim. Aberfan was only one of the most dramatic of these: spina bifida, mongolism, cleft palates and hare lips, idiocy and more, all, in their very incidence, more than just coincidence. And all by-products of greed and cruel and exploitative industrial processes and profits harvested by those who were themselves far away from the source of their wealth, or rapidly escaped as its effects became apparent. Poor atmosphere, poor accommodation, polluted land and polluted people. Land rape and people rape: this is the reality behind a phrase such as Industrial Disease.
The baths and more significantly, the empty boots, in David Garner’s installation History Lesson (what price for coal?) on the top floor, are hugely resonant- I do not find them melodramatic, as the exhibition information sheet suggests, but rather a graphic depiction of reality. Of these artists, I find Sara Rees’ work more gently allusive but its undertow is equally grim. Ironically to see Aurora (who was the Roman goddess of the dawn), we are caused to go- literally down into the biblical and metaphorical dark where- in her cellar installation, twin slabs of black glass, read as grave-holes. This installation, in its gravitas, reminds me forcibly of May Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. And this is the nearest we get to death, august and royal. We go down, as into a catacomb, a mineshaft, or a mausoleum…down…as into The Pit. The Pit, as a metaphor for hell, is fixed and central to our consciousness and both words are indeed synonymous in our minds, again thanks to the Psalmist.
Aurora is a bit Kensall Green Cemetery: all Victorian chill and solemnity maybe, but not still not plausibly august and royal. The frivolous little chandelier, maybe an indicator of the kitsch dimension of death and the odd aesthetics of undertakers’ parlours, does little to dilute the seriousness of this piece. Indeed, the chandelier is central and a bit like The House that Jack Built:
this is the light produced by the power- that was made from the coal- that was cut by the man- who was father of the maid-, who laid the fire and pressed the switch, that put on the light- that lit the house that Sir Jack built.
It is this diminutive fireplace, definitely one on a scale suitable for servants and- no doubt- a happy accident in the cellar and which creates a link with the idea of mines and geological strata. It is totally at variance with the greater social elevation suggested by the chandelier. In this turn that chandelier literally depends on the ceiling and of course on the coal and all the suffering represented by David Garner’s installation, immediately above it.
This exhibition is actually and metaphorically, ‘layered’ and hugely complex in what it touches on. Both artists’ work is highly symbiotic, so that it reads as a single whole, rather than a set of disparate installations. Utilitarianism and the mechanics of production are here, as are the realities of labour and their social effects; the mitigating effects of dream and fantasy too but nothing is over-laboured, even David Garner’s work, which is more direct than Sara Rees’, stops short of over-egging the message, or being too strident. Her texts are infuriatingly elusive and deliberately so. Layered- so strata again, these lit by flickering light, reminiscent of the darting movement of mining lamps, reveal overlayings of poignancy and indicate the cloudings which recede and advance in time and possess no particular pattern, or regularity. These, almost palimpsests, like the different levels of the exhibition itself, also suggest the layerings of geological strata with which the hewers of coal physically had to contend. We are surely not meant to read these fragments in any consistent, or coherent, way but appreciate their underlying message.
So here we have two artists:
One takes a ‘hard,’ dare one say masculine, approach, the other is rather softer. David Garner’s message is pretty much ‘in yer face,’ with little ambiguity: the medium is literally, in this case, most of his message and if we are at all sensitive, with appropriate historical knowledge and knowledge of the distortions of history, we can read his meaning plain. Interfused is something more elusive and more akin to poetry and the imaginings of we the audience have to work much harder here. With both artists we are approaching the mystery of the world, as world in what is cloaked is not necessarily any less elusive than what is explicitly revealed. Clearly there are those who will empathise with some aspects of these works more than others and these reactions will largely be determined by our knowledge and cultural background but for me they are extremely poignantly.
Now many will feel that Mr. Garner Senior had a “very good innings” but to say that is nothing but the home countries euphemistics of Industrial Disease: three score years and ten notwithstanding, he lived to the ripe age of eighty-seven, no mean feat you would suppose for a mere man. But this ignores the fact that it is not his death, or his longevity, which are at issue but the manner of his death and the quality of that life. You (you who have seen inside his lungs) consider and contrast, the different situations (which so exercise David Garner) of the late Queen Mother and the late Mr. Garner:
Man that is borne of woman, hath a short time to live and is full of misery.
We bring nothing into this world, neither may we carry anything out of this world.
The Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore (whose family derived considerable income from the mining activities and suffering, of folk in County Durham), may have brought nothing into this world but, to paraphrase Iris Murdoch, there was a hell of a lot waiting for her when she arrived.
Whatever her misery was, it was elusive and doubtless well and extensively attended to. Unlike, one supposes, the misery of Mr. Garner whose misery might have consisted of pneumoconiosis, or silicosis, or any other ‘sis’, among a euphonic plethora of possibilities.
Now death may well be, as it is said, the Great Leveller but what egalitarian choices it offers: a protracted and painful death by pneumoconiosis or a more cosseted death, by ennui and gin & tonic!
We have in Wales as part of our literature Gwerin y Graith, the literature of the suffering folk or, slightly more poetically, the literature of the scars of the people. How are these scars conveyed in Visual Art?
The subject of Mining in Art has been a well-explored groove. In general the miner has been depicted as specie of ‘noble savage’ and the day to day realities of mining have been appreciated and depicted for their formal qualities, rather than in any spirit of social criticism. Even an image of a mining disaster, Maurice Barnes’ Disaster at Six Bells Colliery, for example is melodramatic but principally decorative. One can think of numbers of images, by John Petts. Evan Walters, Josef Herman, John Elwyn, Will Roberts, Jack Crabtree and numerous others, who really did little to depict the reality and got not closer than- here are a lot of jolly dirty workers, with, I’m sure, noble souls! Documentary photographers did a bit better, with film it is debateable. None of them though, did anything sufficiently biting in their criticism to predict or prevent, such things as Aberfan, or any of the myriad lesser, more personal, disasters. Paradoxically, in Art the reality of the sheer, barely mitigated, horror of industrial South Wales has been better conveyed by artists working in predominantly non-representational modes, for neither impasto daubing, documentary photography, nor the yellow dicky bird watching photos quite do it. The sheets of black glass, the exhausted cinders from the hearth and the school text book in History Lesson do. To understand the meaning of obscenity, we have to regard the implications of the presence of the book in this installations: I want to be a coal miner.
Now, maybe somebody might like to argue this point but I find it difficult to credit that anyone has actually wanted, given any degree of choice, to be a coal miner? In a culture whose mantra has been anything but the mine- even school-teaching, God help- us can anything be more offensive than the manipulation suggested by this book: the homogenisation, sanitisation and blandness of a stylised, hygenised, tidied up Festival of Britain world, with nothing of the realities being shown? It seems to me the equivalent of all the other White Feather- like scams: the cynicism represented by the phrase Industrial Disease, shrouded, in an obscenity of brainwashing!
But truth itself: in vacant boots, the coke from the hearth before which the miner (who probably kept coal in his bath, my dear!) was actually bathed. But there is also the closed back door, the stretcher, the bandaged white coal pick, acting as surrogate for a bandaged body. This pick, like a broken body borne from the stygian darkness emerges, with help of café and winding gear, into what? Not the light of reason evidently but one illuminating- in the literal sense only- obscurantism and hypocrisy.
We need, in Wales, as in most modernising countries reminding. We need the memento mori. In an increasing atmosphere of trivial materialism, we are in danger of losing our past. And that past has profound implications for our present. We need mementos to spur us to vote and to spur us as to what we ought to vote. In each generation we to bear in mind the suffering folk, those who have enabled the enjoyment of out latter-day frivolities. We must remember too that there are those continuing to suffer from the legacy which this exhibition describes.
Truth and beauty are very big words. We are Art people and so know that shit and squalor, properly managed, can make great Art and be beautiful. Here in this exhibition we have an alliance of elements which are nit conventionally beautiful but they do convey great truths and in that alone they become beautiful. That they succeed in moving us is beautiful too, of course.
It is the fundamental responsibility of artists to reinvent Art in each generation and to develop aesthetic vocabularies appropriately responsive to their worlds places and time.
I believe that Sara Rees and David Garner have succeeded in this exhibition in communicating a message that, whilst pulsating with history, resonates profoundly in the present. That they have done so wittily and allusively and indeed more effectively than mere words ever can, I hope I have just demonstrated.
(H.A. Text of talk, coinciding with Memento exhibition. G39, Cardiff, October 2002)